For some time now, I’ve revered saxophonist John Coltrane as a technologist of the highest order. His knack for producing elaborate sonic ideas with an instrument, his inclination for innovation, and his habit of rewiring musical numbers are testaments of his amazing abilities to produce compositions with extraordinary levels of technical sophistication.
Given my admiration of Trane, I was especially pleased to witness the spirit of his work being invoked during a performance here at SIUE last night by the renowned tap dancer Savion Glover.
“Tap dancer” is how we commonly refer to Glover, but we could perhaps more accurately think of him as some kind of hi-tech multi-rhythmic half-man, half-motion machine. I mean seriously. The performance by Glover and his accompanying sidemen Marshall Davis Jr. and Maurice Chesnut represented a fierce, tech-savvy display of kinesthetic energy.
Glover’s performance was arranged by SIUE’s Arts and Issues. Grant Andree and the sponsors for the event really deserve a lot of credit for pulling this one off. It’s not everyday that audiences here would get an opportunity to check out an act like Glover’s “Bare Soundz” performance.
Too often, the more pervasive views of black dance in our society quickly become degrading. Rarely do we get chances to think about black dance in the context of high art with a distinct African American twist.
So Glover offered some new possibilities. And his appearance in a performance hall named after our own Katherine Dunham seemed especially fitting.
According to Sarah Kaufman who reviewed “Bare Soundz” in Washington D.C. a few weeks ago for the Washington Post, “Glover is capable of all the complexities of jazz phrasing, both bass line and melody, the wild improvisation, structure and deconstruction, departure and return.” No question.
What Glover, Davis, and Chesnut offered constituted, quite literally, a kind of jazz.
Before performing one number, Glover announced that the piece was entitled “Gigantic Steps,” a tribute to Coltrane’s groundbreaking album Giant Steps. Glover’s “Gigantic Steps” was intricate, expansive, and thrilling all in spirit of Coltrane.
But it was the piece right before that “Gigantic Steps” that really caught my attention. As the three men went through a variety of jazz-inflected movements and riffs, Glover held a microphone and occasionally hummed excerpts from Coltrane’s Afro Blue.
It was his wordless phrasings and allusions to Coltrane and his use of "afro blue" to complement the group’s steps that really had my mind running.
Over the years, I’ve heard all kinds of musical renditions of Trane’s songs, yet somehow never considered the possibilities of a dance oriented transformation of the music. But there it was, the previously unimaginable being rhythmically materialized.
Simply put, we were witnessing Glover becoming Trane.
And so like Trane, Glover seemed to shift in and out of those old school, sci-fi zones where an outstanding black performer artistically re-presents catching the holy ghost while at the same time showcasing near unbelievable technical precision.
Although Glover’s work alludes to the jazz clubs of the 1940s and 1950s, Kaufman observed, the world back then “didn't make feet like Glover's. His are strictly 21st-century neo-hoofer material, able to mix a light, clean ripple with the authoritative wham of a marching band's drum section.”
Placing Glover on the cutting-edge of the kind of movements that are yet to come is fine by me. We can certainly benefit by recognizing the convergence of cultural knowledge and technical sophistication that comprises his work.